A trumpet traditionally made from the horn of a ram; the Shofar is an important symbol of the Jewish tradition. Used during significant Jewish occasions, it is conventionally used to herald the start of Rosh Hashanah and also sounded on Yom Kippur. The Shofar’s first reference is its use on Mount Sinai when Moses was delivered the Ten Commandments. The Shofar has since been used as a “wake-up call” on various occasions; most prominently, to announce the “New Moon” – the start of the New Year. In a more modern context, the Shofar was sounded at the swearing ceremony of the President of Israel.
The Sound of the Shofar
The Shofar is categorized as a wind instrument without any pitch-altering options. All sound variations are done manually by the Shofar-blower’s lipping techniques (using lips, tongue, teeth and, facial muscles).
Specific sounds signify particular events. The Shofar can produce wailing sounds, sobbing sounds and can be sounded in short blasts or a long blowout. The sound sequences vary strictly according to Jewish protocol.
The Shofar blowing is mainly of the following types:
- The Tekiah, which is a long blast done in a single breath
- The Shevarim, which comprises three short blasts done in quick succession
- The Teruah, which may be in the form of a set of multiple short blasts or an intense, resonant blast
When sounded correctly, each note and each blast has a crisp and distinct sound, making it a perfect supplement to any music.
The Shofar’s Influence in Music
The sound of this ancient Jewish trumpet has been described as evocative, powerful, and primeval. Many composers and musicians have been deeply enamoured with its inherent nature and even included it in their original compositions. It has been a source of inspiration for centuries. Early classical composers like Bernstein, Elgar, and Gershwin to modern-day Madonna, musicians worldwide include its unique sounds in their art.
Although probably counted as one of the world’s oldest instruments, the Shofar is yet to be explored exponentially in the world of music. In this context, it is still in its nascent stage.
The variety of sounds and their resonance provide a powerful element to music which is why several Jewish musicians and bands are now popularising the Shofar. The sound of the Shofar is being used in all kinds of music ranging from classical to jazz to even punk.
Famous trumpeter Lester Bowie used the Shofar in ‘The Art Ensemble of Chicago.’ Madonna mixed the Shofar’s unmissable sounds in the track “Isaac” from the album “Confessions on a Dance Floor” in 2005. Kabbalist Yitzhak Sinwani toured with her in 2006 to sound the horn. More recently, composer Meira Warshauer played a piece called “Tekeeyah” (a call) incorporating the Shofar’s sound in a manner that’s more musical than traditional.
Yidcore – Australian Punk Music Band
Yidcore, a Jewish Punk music band formed in 1998 in Australia, created its logo with a shofar as an integral element. Lead singer Bram Presser has played the Shofar in more than 10 Yidcore tracks.
In 2002, the lyrics of their Hebrew song “Hakotel” mentions the Shofar at the Western Wall, and Presser sounded the Jewish trumpet himself to “create a bustling Kotel scene.” The effect was fantastic.
In 2004, the song “Hora (New Version)” incorporated the sounds of the Shofar in the sequence of Teruah – shevarim – tekiah gedolah. This fulfilled their need for a bold order in the track beautifully.
The song “They Tried to Kill Us. They Failed. Let’s Eat!” featured the sound of the Shofar as the declaration of a euphoric jamboree.
Presser, a native of Melbourne city, is also known for drinking kosher wine from the Shofar, claiming it to be “a great siphon for alcoholic beverages!” One person pours the wine from one end, and the other drinks it from the opposite end – these were nicknamed ‘shofar shots.”
The Schleps – American Hardcore/Punk Band
A one-man Jewish band based in Boston, MA, The Schleps includes the Shofar fascinatingly in his track “Tekiyot” released in 2017. Joshua Sherer, a Punkrocker, gives a lesson of sorts in the various shofar sounds in the song “Tekiyot.” He asks for a tekiah, a terurah, a shevarim, and a tekiah gedolah. He then goes on to play all four sounds on the Shofar multiple times. His signature Jewish metalcore creates the background score for the whole track.
Schmekel – American Punk Band
A four-member transgender band based in Brooklyn, NY, Schmekel is famous for its folk punk and queercore genre of music. Their song ‘I’m sorry, It’s Yom Kippur’ features a traditional Ashkenazi call for a tekia, after which, ensues the standard sound of a shofar. The song is a part of their album ‘Queers on Rye’ released in 2011.
Although Schmekel went defunct in 2014, band singer and guitarist Lucian Kahn exclaims, “I cannot make it between my building and the subway two blocks away on Rosh Hashanah without being handed a shofar at least three times.”
Macklemore – American Rapper
Seattle-based rapper Macklemore is a non-Jewish artist who blew the Shofar in a promotional ad campaign for MTV’s Video Music Awards in 2013. Following the call, the ad showed young hipsters running forwards through fields. It was broadcast as a call to its viewers to watch his performance with Ryan Lewis at the Award Show.
Alvin Curran – American Composer
Born in Rhode Island and currently living in Rome, Italy, Alvin Curran is a famous composer and sound artist known for his avantgarde work incorporating punk-ish power electronics and environmental sounds. His piece “Shofar Rags” released in 2013 (a part of the Radical Jewish Culture series), is dedicated to the ancient Jewish instrument. Another song, “Ashamnu” from the album “Shofarot Verses,” imbibes the unmistakable sounds of the Shofar (played by Paul Shapiro). It talks about Jewish liturgy.
Curran had earlier used the shofar blasts in his tracks ‘For Julian’ and ‘Crystal Psalms,’ both released in 1988.
The sounding of animal horns is an ancient practice used in most religions and cultures worldwide in history. The Jewish Shofar is a fine example of keeping ancient traditions alive in the contemporary scenario. With its haunting sounds and the powerful emotions it evokes in the Jewish community, the Shofar is becoming a common denominator infusing faith with music.
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